I went to Ferguson for the one year commemoration of the murder of Michael Brown. I accompanied my wife and Maria Hamilton, whose son was killed by Milwaukee police last April. I came away deeply moved by the dynamism of the young activists. It was clear to me that #BlackLivesMatter is spearheading a new black liberation movement that just might have the potential to transform society and reach alienated youth.
We were in Ferguson for the marches, the shootings Sunday night, and the civil disobedience Monday. We supported those who were arrested at the Department of Justice and trained for confrontation but fortunately were not among those jailed. The crowd was exuberant, chanting “We’ve Already Won” at the lines of armed cops. One young girl was wearing a T-shirt that summed it up: “This Ain’t your Momma’s Civil Rights Movement.”
No indeed. This new movement is decentralized, organized yet not organized, and its youthful activists exhibit courage, street smarts, and dedication. They don’t take orders from anyone. This new, dynamic set of comrades rely on social media to mobilize and educate, and won’t let the constant police provocations hold them back. Police murders are the essence of dehumanization and Michael Brown’s death has sent Ferguson into a state of rebellion. Young people are screaming, “Enough is Enough.” This is an American Intifada and I’m on their side.
But the events in Ferguson are not one thing. I was not foolish enough to think in a few days I could learn anything about the gangs and the extent of their participation in the uprising. Lots of people claim they know, but there is no serious research. We heard that gang members in Ferguson pledged at one time to put down arms against one another and unite against police. So did Baltimore gangs, who publicly denounced lies that they were planning to shoot police and called for calm. In Seattle the gangs marched together. #BlackLivesMatter seems to be reaching the most alienated.
If there is hope to stem gang violence, I don’t think it lies in formal programs like CureViolence or law enforcement schemes to threaten leaders, or even less in the failed strategy of mass incarceration. As I have been writing from People & Folks to A World of Gangs to The In$ane Chicago Way, the real hope for us is to pull gang members into social movements — like those in Ferguson. Gangs are by nature made up of desperate, angry young men and women. I’m sure they are among the those on Florissant Street confronting the police. These youth are setting the fire this time for all of us.
It’s not clear how the gun play started Sunday night. Some claimed two groups of youth were shooting at one another. Just because there is a movement for justice does not mean the internalized anger of black youth will be easily channelled into activism. The movement may offer hope, but it doesn’t promise as many jobs as the dope game. As it stands, our movement can’t even get more than a few killer police indicted, much less punished for murder. This won’t make gang kids’ anger go away but instead will heat it up.
In The In$ane Chicago Way I looked at how Latino gangs with their superior connections to Mexican cartels built a Spanish mafia in Chicago. Black gang members, already at the bottom of conventional society are also at the bottom of the drug game. In Chicago their old hierarchical “street organizations” have shattered. Like the movement in Ferguson, black gangs are decentralized and their youthful members look to social media not self proclaimed leaders for inspiration.
What Ferguson taught me was the vital importance of reaching out now to black youth on the streets. The In$ane Chicago Way argues that organized crime is a serious threat to our youth. However the lack of legitimacy of the old gang leaders means street youth are looking for something new and events in Ferguson show us the way. We need to realize #BlackLivesMatter means gang members too. The alternative to joining this powerful social movement is watching our youth succumb to an even deeper cycle of despair and destructiveness. Ferguson is above all a call to action.
John Hagedorn is a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.
First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee is a home for spiritual community, social justice, and intellectual freedom, active in Milwaukee since 1842. Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive denomination; core principles include recognition of the worth and dignity of every person; respect for the interdependent web of existence; and the goal of world peace, liberty and justice.